Monday, October 25, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain, Part 3

Rumana Husain was in Korea recently, at Nambook-010, the 5th Nami Island International Children's Book Festival, where she was among a select group of contributors to a peace story anthology.

In answer to my question, she writes:

It goes back to my student days. I had entered my third year as a graphic design student here in Karachi when we were introduced to a new faculty member who had recently graduated from the famous National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where I had aspired to study, but in those days (late sixties, early seventies) my mother would not hear of sending me 'far' away to Lahore even though my grandfather had sent my aunt from Jabalpur (MP) to Lucknow, to the Isabella Thoburn College, and later on to Vellore in the south as it had the best women's college of medicine...and all this in the 1940s! Anyway, so Mr Khalil, our new teacher, frowned at our work and said, "It is heavily in the Western mode." He was right, as something was amiss in our training and we were not looking inwards and around. Also, in those computerless years, we were taught to do our own (English) lettering (Roman, Gothic, serif, sanserif, etc.) and Mr Khalil had reason to frown some more! "No Urdu captions for your posters?" he said. "You know you are not going to be working only for a handful of English-speaking people of our country. Think in Urdu!" He taught us a stylised version of Urdu calligraphy. Then he pointed out the difference between our West-inspired drawings and graphics and drawings from traditional (read subcontinental) folk culture. He also made us aware of the fact that as Pakistanis we are traditionally drawn to a lot of ornamentation (our truck art, our mehndi designs, bridalware, jewellery, carved furniture, etc.). I would therefore attribute this 'awakening' to his teachings. I started illustrating my work with such birds, trees, etc. using motifs from all those things that he said we should be studying for inspiration.

The Moghul school of miniature paintings was another tremendous inspiration. During our fourth and final year my close friend Seema (who now runs/owns Interflow Communications - an advertising agency - as well as TV One, a television channel and a radio channel, etc) and I went away to Lahore (rather 'ran away' from school as we did not inform the head about our one-month long adventure during the school year). This bold step was taken at the behest of two women, Meher Nigar Masroor and Naheed Jafri / Azfar, who used to head the children's book division of the National Book Foundation (NBF) set up by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Once when Seema and I visited them, looking to make some money by free-lancing as children's book illustrators, they asked us to go spend some days at the historical Lahore Museum (it is located next door to the NCA) and copy the artefacts there so that they could then be used for a history book that they were planning to bring out. We pleaded with our parents to let us go there and Seema's mother made arrangements for us to stay with her aunt and so we went off to Lahore where for us, two Karachi girls, it was freezing cold in December. Although at the end of our sojourn there we did not end up with a book contract with the NBF,  what we gained from that memorable first hand experience was much more. Tucking our sketch pads and pencils under our arms, we used to go to the Museum every morning, drawing away relentlessly.

The final year at the art school was dedicated for what was known as the 'final year thesis' whereby we had to build an advertising or awareness raising campaign around a product or a service. Initially I had wanted to do it for a children's toy company, but soon decided in favour of my other My design 'campaign' was for EMI, and I used folklore and historical references such as the legends of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Pannu, Sohni Mahewal, the great Tansen and so on.

I would say that my love for our subcontinental traditions has its roots in my childhood, which included yearly visits to Bombay and Jabalpur to meet part of our family across the border, as well as my training in art. My work has this mix of Indo-Pak cultural influence.

Thank you Rumana and Uma! I'd like to round out this post  with a link to Katia Novet Saint-Lot's blog, where she's posted pictures of the Bangladeshi artists who painted a wall in her house.

Look at that wall. Now go back and look at these pictures. When art travels and is expressed in different media and forms, it can make connections where before there were only walls.

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